jack layton, the giving body, the anatomy of empathy, the fire, the light
On Monday, Federal MP Libby Davies stood in the slanting rain of St. John’s and voiced a primal fact: “Jack Layton gave his life for his country”. My heart is with her. But I’d like to add another focus to “his life”. His body was given, and is now returned, to his country, our land.
I write today as a poet and therapist of the body, about Jack Layton, on the day of his state funeral, which will wind through the arteries of my own city, dressed in blood-red maples. I awoke at 4am with lingering sobs that have now evolved into several scattered thoughts about embodiment, the dynamism of sacrifice and illness, dying as recycling, our ecology of giving and loving and burning. And I’ve added a few observations on the meaning of his bodily signs, culled from what I’ve learned of natural medicine and its maps of the flesh. I’m not writing with the presumption of having known him, but as someone who saw something from a distance that now makes sense, through this body.
Jack was in his flesh, alright. Fists bashing the lecterns at city hall. On the double bicycle, with Olivia, with whom we all ride now. Picking over tomatoes in Kensington market, bike helmet in hand. With a guitar, harmonica, his foot stomping: belting out Stan Rogers on a campaign bus through the endless north. He had the uncrafted rhythm of every hopeful music. The smile that flowed upwards so freely, his quick laugh of wit and absurdity. His face was not gray, nor his jaw locked, nor did he speak through that armour, now standard issue to most politicians, that splits our public and private faces. He radiated himself into relationship. He didn’t hold his flesh back from life, or policy. He mastered the stage with a complete instrument.
In the oldest natural medicines of Greece, India, Europe, and First Nations folk, his type of radiance comes from a predominance of fire element in the natal constitution. Its potential for inflammation is balanced by water, and earth, and cooling oils, everything maternal, gazing at the open sky, and sweet tastes. It takes a true mother lode of moisture for a body to withstand the fire of empathy. If you watch his final speech in July, stepping down from the leadership, you can hear that the juice is almost burned away. You can see the loss in his skin, the fat depleted, and the eyes, recessed from once moist beds. Still, he gleams with unrelenting vision. Vision, itself governed by fire, but in his last days a fire with a dwindling base, a fire forced to sublimate upward and outward.
The Indian system of Ayurveda is even more specific about fire, public presence, and the sap of the body. It suggests that both renown and fundamental immunity draw on the same end-product of nutrition. A demand in one area will shorten the supply to the other. Giving your life-blood to the public is not a metaphor. It is the quite literal process of the progressive body, which knows life is life because it is shared, and finally surrendered completely.
Turning to the root of the body. Leaving diet, genes, and toxins aside, prostate cancer is the mark of embattled creativity in a man’s body. The gland is a site where downward flows are confronted by upward flows. Downward: the gland that adds plasma to seed, and the gland through which toxins transit. Upward, it is the gland that contracts with every perineal pulse that translates desire into ideas, every bracing of the lower body to stand firm against attack. A man’s body is a continual argument between material and ideal impulses. The progressive man uses this argument as a kind of inner fuel. It is non-renewable.
Radiation to treat the inflamed prostate will of course further parch the waters of the pelvis. And then, I think: his hip fractured. Why his hip? There is more meaning here than radiation, perhaps. But of course the cancer may have entered his bones in the spring.
The hip is the juncture of earth and self, where the support of your grounding transits into the trunk of your will. A dry hip, an immobile hip, a fragile hip: these are signs that the connection between the earth and personal destiny has worn thin. When the hip breaks, there is a loss of grounding. Why the right hip? In esoteric anatomy, the right hip is one of the seats of the father. I can only imagine that with his line of political fathers and mentors stretching back to Tommy Douglas and before, this joint between the earth and his dreams logged an impossible mileage. He limped on that fracture, rising to speak, rising to speak again, pouring with sweat, pouring with oratory, simple, clear, compelling, hauling the bright weight of generosity.
Visible to everyone was the emotional resilience. For decades we watched him transform attacks into opportunities, weather slurs with a smile, and respond to outrages with dignity. And all instantly, it seems. He never missed a beat when handed an insult or tragic news. He immediately converted the black into the useful, the pragmatic, and the hopeful. There is training here, and technique, of course, and clearly a heavy internal cost. The reflex for this instant conversion exacts a mystical price. The body shines with the transaction, until it is exhausted.
No man can build a public career on empathy without being centred in his own feelings. The disparity between his intentions and the regressions thrown at him was vast. How strange it must have been for him, and is for us all, to have our most hopeful thoughts demeaned. I believe every barb and disappointment landed in a body of shadows he expertly hid until these last months. And where is our own shadow body? How do we, as loving people, heal the inevitable wounds of love?
There is an old spiritual practice in Buddhism that I believe progressives naturally perform. It builds on that mirror-neurology in all of us that cues an instant bodily contraction when we encounter someone in pain. This genetic empathy, hardwired into our collective will to survive, can be actively cultivated. The Tibetans call it tong-len, or “giving and taking”. It consists of the iron intention to console the suffering you see with the very rhythm of your breath. You use the inhale to imagine the energies of distress drawing away from the suffering person, and towards you. You use the exhale to return whatever grace and good will you can find in your heart.
All the old teachers insist on not “holding” the sufferings of others, as this will begin to overwhelm the nerves and circulation. (This is old news to parents.) They suggest visualizing a blazing fire in your heart, where the inhale may offer the sufferings you’ve attenuated into the flames of annihilation. My therapeutic experience so far is that activists for social democracy instinctually breathe in the broken world, but often lack the fire to burn this broken vision, to burn the despair of self and other. Jack had such fire, burning hot and fast, and it finally overpowered the sap of his body.
I am in awe at the ongoing sacrifice of being alive to each other. Now I am willing to pay, all in, to the bone. There isn’t a choice, and I have nothing else.
I’ll finish here. It is almost 2pm, on August 27, 2011. The black horses are turning onto Simcoe Street. I have no time to edit. None of us do. The pipes are beginning to play, for us.